Easy Credit Is Back -- at Least for Car Buyers

car loans
car loans

Auto loans are easier to get now than they have been in years. That's the conclusion of a new report from credit research firm Experian, which said Tuesday that during the first quarter U.S. lenders gave car buyers some of the best terms since the financial crisis.

Why such generosity? Because more lenders are competing for your business, Experian says.

If you're shopping for a car -- especially if your credit is less than perfect -- you already know why this is good news.

With more lenders competing for your business, the terms of your loan -- things like the interest rate you'll be paying, and the amount of time you have to repay -- are likely to be better than they would have been a year or two ago. For some people, that takes the pressure off trying to keep that old jalopy running for another year.

And what's good for car shoppers has been good for the automakers, too: Toyota's (TM) sales were up about 12% for the year through April, and Ford (F) has seen its sales rise about 5%, as U.S. auto sales have picked up in recent months.
This is another sign that things are getting better -- or at least, getting back to "normal" -- in the U.S. economy. But is that really a good thing?

Will All This Lending Lead to Trouble?

Some may ask if all this competition to lend is a good thing. After all, banks like Citigroup (C) and Bank of America (BAC) got in trouble not so long ago for making too many bad loans -- trouble that took the economy down with it.

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It's natural to wonder whether more relaxed lending standards in the auto industry could lead to a repeat performance. But analysts say that's not likely.

They point out that auto loans are safer for the banks than the mortgage and credit card loans that contributed to the financial crisis. "Subprime" car loans -- loans to people with credit scores below 680 on Experian's scale -- typically have lower default rates than the subprime mortgages that got so many banks into trouble back in 2008.

Why? It's because people need their cars to get to work. Since it's relatively easy for a lender to repossess a car, cash-strapped borrowers are much more attentive to their auto loans and tend to make their car payments a high priority.

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Before You Sign on the Dotted Line...

As tempting as good rates on a car loan may be, buyers still must consider the bottom line. The fact is that cars are not getting any cheaper.

Experian says that the average new-car loan is up to almost $26,000. As new cars have become more "loaded" than ever -- loaded with elaborate safety features, and the infotainment gizmos once seen only on luxury cars -- their costs have risen sharply.

All the great features can make your current car seem like a tired old ride in comparison. But buyers still need to shop carefully, and pay attention to the true cost of their coveted new ride.

At the time of publication, Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear owned shares of Ford. The Fool owns shares of Ford, Bank of America, and Citigroup. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of and creating a synthetic long position in Ford.

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